“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”


“Abstraction?……they’re too young to understand it”. This was pretty much the advice I was given by one particular teacher when I was doing my art teacher training. I was rather shocked at the time and it has been a comment that I have often thought about since. I have always been drawn towards art with a strong abstract qualities and it is also important in my own studio work. The point this lecturer was trying to make was that in terms of art interpretation it was undoubtedly easier to give a fifteen year old a figurative image with a strong sense of narrative. It gives them simpler things to work with. The entry level is easier.  I get all that, but does it mean we should avoid abstraction? Of course not, that would be crazy, we would be neglecting way too much of art history that way.

Abstraction is difficult for many teenagers, why just paint lines, shapes, colours and textures when you could paint objects, people, places and stories? It does need some careful explanation. And so this week I will begin a short series of lessons that I often do with my groups of fifteen year olds that focus on trying to show why and how some artists set about making largely abstract work.

There are various ways in which this can be done. Some teachers, like my own teacher when I was at school was amongst them, choosing to make use of figurative art that has been reduced and reduced until little that is recognizable remains. I choose though to try a route that hopefully is more recognizable to a teenager. Drawing links to music (instrumental in order to avoid confusion with narrative lyrics) or contemporary architecture. I try to show pupils how non-representational sounds in the case of music or forms in architecture can work to produce, expressive, engaging and complex results.

abstract sculpture

They are used to becoming emotionally engaged in a favourite piece of music or enjoying the wow factor of the gleaming metal lines and reflective surfaces of a modern building.  It is still something of an intellectual leap to discover some of the parallels that a visual artist might be trying to explore. But is it too difficult to make it worth trying to explore it? Certainly not, in fact I would say quite the opposite. When it comes to working with pupils on practical work on the theme it offers creative possibilities to pupils who with many other sorts of art assignment may struggle.

Inward and outward looking classes

Parents and teachers alike will recognize the often observed tendency in younger teenagers in particular that they sometimes seem to think they are the center of the universe. Yes, we all feel it from time to time, but generally I don’t experience this sort of individualism too often. Many young people are fun to be with, give you the energy to teach and respond well to the world around them.
imageHaving said all that, the garden is not always rosy in educationland. Why is it that I find myself looking forward to teaching one class and feel frustration and irritation with another of the same age? The lesson material is the same, the assignments and activities the same, even the teacher is the same. It is easy to simply say that the pupils themselves are the only variable that has changed, it can’t be me can it! But it is of course a little more complex. It is to do with personalities, theirs and mine, combinations and contrasts in how characters, individuals and groups combine and interact.
For me personally, if, with a particular class, this sort of battlefield of differences occurs it is normally in the second year or early third year (ages 13-15). By the end of the third year (perhaps when they are a little older) we’re normally all the best of friends. Whenever a sort of conflict does arise I find myself trying to analyze it to work out what exactly is going on (it’s perhaps revealing that I never do this when it’s going well!). Individually I rarely have any significant issues, the pupils are fine when dealt with on a one to one basis. So what is it that goes on with them as a group?
It is undoubtedly not always the case, but so often I find myself coming to the same conclusion, a class is either an inward or outward looking group.
An outward looking group is one that is interested in each other, the broader class, well beyond just their best friends. They are interested in what they are actually in school to do, follow lessons and make social contact with an extended school society. They are open to try and get what they can from this. They are normally quite good at relating lesson material to the world around them. They are not necessarily especially good at their school work, although their attitude is likely to be beneficial to them. These qualities are all very positive, but perhaps the most important of all in terms of my experience as a teacher of the class is that the are (or at least seem to be) interested in me. This interest goes more than just being the channel through which lesson material flows. It allows a different and more complex relationship to be built within the classroom that is undoubtedly ultimately beneficial to all.
The inward looking group may academically be very strong. They may be able to score high grades. But trying to get them to exit the world of their little clusters of closest friends, there is the challenge. As a teacher it often feels like you are teaching through a faulty intercom system. Reactions from the class are crackly and hugely delayed if they come at all.
Maybe I’ve had a bad day, but I do like a class where I can discuss the football from the previous evening, our musical preferences or where we (yes all of us) have been on holiday. Sometimes an inward looking class does, with time, become an outward looking one, but not always it would seem. You do your best, you engage with those open for it, thankfully dynamics of groups do change over the months and years. But there may inevitably be a few that will leave secondary school still thinking that the universe revolves around them.

Immigration – Pupil work and feedback

Two months ago I wrote this post:

Struggling to extend the teenage world view

20110427-immigrationIt was a post about the issue of illegal immigration and in particular how art and culture can be used to make us consider it in a different way to the mainstream news routes. In the post I wrote the following:

“I feel very confident of the quality of my examples and indeed of my lesson material. Yet somehow, this year perhaps more than in previous years, I don’t quite feel like the message is getting through. When I reflect a little on this situation my conclusion is that perhaps for too many in my current groups the intellectual and emotional step that they must make to reach an appreciation of the plight of illegal immigrants is just too big.  They’re aware of the problem, they’ve heard it mentioned in the news, but it’s just not their issue.”

At the time I was reacting possibly to a couple of less responsive lessons, where I was perhaps trying to provoke a reaction from my 15 and 16 year olds. We had all seen the reports of the immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in their leaky and over filled boats, and just last week there were a number of trucks stopped at Harwich International Port in the East of England containing sixty-eight people from Afghanistan, China and Vietnam.

68 found in Harwich containers

poemBut somehow, despite the real life news stories, my lesson material and my best efforts during the lessons themselves, I had the feeling that I hadn’t quite reached my pupils the way I wanted to.

To be honest I should know better. In education, a feeling of immediate feedback from pupils is relatively rare, normally you have to wait. You have to wait for the work to be done, the report written or the artwork made. Sometimes you have to wait for years, you find yourself talking to an ex-pupil and they recount a specific detail from a specific lesson as being important to them in some way. It’s great when it happens, but you do have to be patient for such feedback!

My doubts about my immigration module have been largely disproved by the quality of the work that I have been getting in the last weeks. Some of them almost sound thankful for being given the insight! Showing the film The Visitor has certainly helped. It has provided an individual narrative that the news stories fail to have.  In particular the poem I asked my Dutch pupils (writing in English,their second language) to produce about the plight of the immigrant was particularly enlightening.

Studio day – walls and birds commission

I’ve been working for a for a few weeks now on a commission project.  Progress is inevitably just steady as I try to fit studio days in amongst other commitments.  Its and interesting project as the three paintings that I will ultimately be making are all pretty much existing work, only they are much smaller.  Some colours are changing in the larger works, and the birds will inevitably turn out differently but the basic wall structure across the three canvases that together will be about four metres wide will remain true to the smaller versions.


So far with the first two canvases under way progress is fine.  The physicality of the curving wall in the empty landscapes is particularly satisfying to see develop as that seems to be working in quite a different manner to the smaller versions.